Archive Compositions

Madra, for string quartet

This work has had two incarnations. It began as Gram, a modular short score for variable instrumentation. It consisted mostly of single measures with repeat signs and a suggested number of repetitions shown just above. The title page indicated the score could be played by two percussionists and/or piano/synthesizer and/or string quartet. Performers were essentially invited to arrange the music themselves.

When Gram was workshopped by the Madawaska String Quartet, leading to an eventual premiere and recording, I was obliged to create a traditional score and set of parts. I gave the piece a new title, Madra.

It was at that point a fully realized, collaborative work. After several live performances it was recorded for commercial release. The recording plays below, followed by my notes from Madawaska’s CD prefab (available from the Canadian Music Centre and on iTunes).

Madra was composed in 1999 and revised in 2002, immediately after I participated in Madawaska’s composer workshop. Its title is also the first name of my maternal grandmother, to whom the work is dedicated. She was a farmer and schoolteacher in the Canadian West. I recall she would play hymns on the piano in Sunday school when I was very young and perhaps there is an echo of that here.

The quartet is in one movement with five sections: slow, fast, slow, fast, very slow. There are a number of audible influences on the piece: the repeating canons and modularity of minimalism; the polyrhythms and hocketing of Central and West African traditional music; and root-chord progressions from popular music. The harmony is diatonic, and there are measured amounts of harmonic stasis as found in some medieval vocal music and modal jazz.

With these influences in mind, all of the rhythmic, melodic and harmonic content is derived from the three-note cell repeated at the beginning. Symmetry is employed in a general way throughout, especially in the vertical construction of intervals.

When I presented the piece to the Madawaska Quartet, it had very few dynamic or expressive indications – in a naive way it was an “Art of the Fugue” approach to scoring. More than merely realizing and interpreting it, Madawaska has infused Madra with tonal colour and kinetic direction beyond what I could have imagined while composing. They have given the music a voice, and a sense of light and weightlessness.

performed by The Madawaska String Quartet
Rebecca van der Post, violin
Sarah Fraser-Raff, violin
Anna Redekop, viola
Amber Ghent, cello

Recorded by Garnet Willis, St. Andrew-by-the-Lake Church, Toronto Islands, 2009
Mixed at Noisetree Digital
All rights reserved

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce Russell 2012

Composers Compositions

John Williams is 80

(Originally posted on sleepsong, April 21, 2009. Happy 80th birthday, Maestro!)

When John Met Igor

Older fans of traditional film scores and/or 20th century music will know this one.

And almost everyone knows the main musical theme to the 1975 film Jaws, directed by Steven Spielberg and his first major success as well as generally being the first acknowledged Hollywood blockbuster.

Saying the shark theme is iconic is like saying Obama got a dog; saying it is iconic is beyond understatement. It is one of the most viral musical memes ever created. It doesn’t need a ringtone to stay in our consciousness.

Last summer I heard small children passing Jaws along – still – at a public wading pool, 33 years after it was written. Spielberg laughed at composer John Williams when the latter first played the little two-note riff on the piano for him. It’s fair to say the theme – which recurs constantly throughout the film although it’s only a tiny part of a very sophisticated score – is just as responsible for the film’s impact on pop culture as the visuals.

Only true music geeks know that the theme (properly, a motif) builds into chugging, razor-toothed chords straight outta Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (“The Rite of Spring”). Le Sacre is a ballet score that famously – along with the “primitive” choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky which it accompanied – caused a riot at its 1913 premiere. The direction of concert music was thus notoriously changed, and Jaws is easily the most well-known of many film scores that were directly influenced by it, in this case over 60 years later.

For this post, I took a CD of the Jaws score – as originally recorded and conducted by John Williams in Hollywood with a small studio orchestra in 1975, and a CD of Le Sacre – as conducted by Igor Stravinsky in New York City with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra in 1960, and cross-faded and mashed them up them DJ style. We hears Jaws first, then Le Sacre at 0:33, then Williams swims back into the mix alongside Stravinsky from 1:18 until the end.

Spring Bites

I have not altered the pitch nor speed of either recording, letting them kind of wash up (ahem) over each other. I created this audio file in real time using my CD turntables – no desktop software was involved.

Williams was in essence sampling Stravinsky to create the underpinning to Jaws, the way a hip-hop producer might loop a drum break from an old R&B/funk record to make a new-school beat. Of course, hip-hop wasn’t quite born yet in 1975.


Cadence Canon (On Eight Notes)

g’/d’     b♭’/d’     b♭’/f#’      b’/f#’       b’/e’      a♭’/e’     a♭’/c’       g’/c’
a♭/c       g/c          g/d          b♭/d       b♭/f#      b/f#        b/e        a♭/e



Chord Canons (On Seven Notes)


g”/c”     c”/f’      a’/f’        e”/a’       e”/b’      d”/b’      g”/d”
a/f         e’/a       e’/b        d’/b        g’/d’       g’/c’       c’/f


b’/e’      b’/g’      d”/g’      d”/f’        f’/c’       a’/c’        a’/e’
a/c         a/e        b/e         b/g         d’/g       d’/f         f/c


a”/d”    d”/g’     b’/g’       e”/b’      e”/c”      f”/c”      a”/f”
b/g        e’/b       e’/c ‘       f’/c’       a’/’f        a’/’d       d’/g


Compositions Memoir


“Sequence, symmetry & simplicity”–my composer’s motto, 1996. 15 years later, inspiration strikes and the same schemes still seem sparkly.


Canon on Six Notes

Musical symmetry in the eponymous string quartet I wrote for my grandmother Madra, who would’ve been 105 this year:

a”/d’     d”/f’     f”/c’     c”/g’     g”/e’     e”/a’


Compositions Memoir

Canon on Four Notes

This is as close to a personal musical symbol as I get:

c’/f    f’/d    d’/g    g’/c